May 06 2016

The Panama papers are not about tax

Posted by: Nicholas Shaxson in: Thoughts

This contains a cross-post from a blog I wrote for the Tax Justice Network recently, with the same headline. It complements another article I wrote for the UK’s Prospect Magazine, entitled Don’t Call Them Tax Havens. An introductory paragraph says:

“A few have called this the “Panama tax avoidance scandal,” but this reveals a profound misunderstanding of tax havens. Tax is important, but it’s a subsidiary issue—and that goes for tax havens more generally. The dangers these places pose are of a greater order.”

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The Panama papers are not about tax

This deliberately provocative headline is of course not fully true: tax is clearly a tremendously important aspect of the Panama papers scandal, as it continues to roil governments and élites and their advisers, around the globe. But there are far too many commentators who seem to be putting this into a ‘tax’ pigeonhole. Many have dubbed this “the Panama tax avoidance scandal” (or variants of this) — which reflects a profound misunderstanding of what is going on.

First, as an aside, we should probably banish this word ‘avoidance’ from the tax lexicon, because it’s so widely misused and misunderstood (it helps use words like ‘tax cheating’ or ‘escape’ instead, to keep you out of the thorny thickets of what’s legal or not.) But more importantly for today’s blog, these commentators have erred when they put Panama into the ‘tax’ box. Tax is a subsidiary story.

The Panama papers are, most importantly, about secrecy, and . . . hiding: hiding drugs money, hiding money from spouses, hiding from angry creditors, hiding from Mafia-hunting police, and of course hiding from tax too. It is a more general story about wealthy, law avoiding folk and “tax havens” (which are, again less about tax than about other things, as we’ve noted.).  Aditya Chakrabortty, writing in The Guardian, cites a TJN expert:

“Thirty years of runaway incomes for those at the top, and the full armoury of expensive financial sophistication, mean they no longer play by the same rules the rest of us have to follow. Tax havens are simply one reflection of that reality. Discussion of offshore centres can get bogged down in technicalities, but the best definition I’ve found comes from expert Nicholas Shaxson who sums them up as: ‘You take your money elsewhere, to another country, in order to escape the rules and laws of the society in which you operate.’ ”

Note that the t-word is absent from that loose definition.

One of the few people in the world who has a well-informed insider’s perspective who is also happy to speak out about it is Brooke Harrington of Copenhagen Business School, who took the remarkable step of actually obtaining a professional qualification in wealth management to pursue her studies. As she told our Taxcast recently:

“Tax avoidance was really only the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t realise how much bigger the problem is. Really what wealth managers do extend much more generally to law avoidance. And that creates problems of legitimacy for whole governments: it’s bad enough that people think they are getting shafted because the rich aren’t paying their fair share of taxes: it’s quite another matter when you say there is one law for the rich and one for everyone else and they are not the same: that is the sort of thing that can potentially topple governments.”

And read her article in The Atlantic, if you haven’t already. It will tell you a lot about how the world actually works.

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